Underground: Chapter 3 -- The American Connection

Contents | Previous: Chapter 2 -- The Corner Pub | Next: Chapter 4 -- The Fugitive

US forces give the nod It's a setback for your country

-- from `US Forces', on 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 by Midnight Oil1

Force had a secret. The Parmaster wanted it.

Like most hackers, The Parmaster didn't just want the secret, he needed it. He was in that peculiar state attained by real hackers where they will do just about anything to obtain a certain piece of information. He was obsessed.

Of course, it wasn't the first time The Parmaster craved a juicy piece of information. Both he and Force knew all about infatuation. That's how it worked with real hackers. They didn't just fancy a titbit here and there. Once they knew information about a particular system was available, that there was a hidden entrance, they chased it down relentlessly. So that was exactly what Par was doing. Chasing Force endlessly, until he got what he wanted.

It began innocently enough as idle conversation between two giants in the computer underground in the first half of 1988. Force, the well-known Australian hacker who ran the exclusive Realm BBS in Melbourne, sat chatting with Par, the American master of X.25 networks, in Germany. Neither of them was physically in Germany, but Altos was.

Altos Computer Systems in Hamburg ran a conference feature called Altos Chat on one of its machines. You could call up from anywhere on the X.25 data communications network, and the company's computer would let you connect. Once connected, with a few brief keystrokes, the German machine would drop you into a real-time, on-screen talk session with anyone else who happened to be on-line. While the rest of the company's computer system grunted and toiled with everyday labours, this corner of the machine was reserved for live on-line chatting. For free. It was like an early form of the Internet Relay Chat. The company probably hadn't meant to become the world's most prestigious hacker hang-out, but it soon ended up doing so.

Altos was the first significant international live chat channel, and for most hackers it was an amazing thing. The good hackers had cruised through lots of computer networks around the world. Sometimes they bumped into one another on-line and exchanged the latest gossip. Occasionally, they logged into overseas BBSes, where they posted messages. But Altos was different. While underground BBSes had a tendency to simply disappear one day, gone forever, Altos was always there. It was live. Instantaneous communications with a dozen other hackers from all sorts of exotic places. Italy. Canada. France. England. Israel. The US. And all these people not only shared an interest in computer networks but also a flagrant contempt for authority of any type. Instant, real-time penpals--with attitude.

However, Altos was more exclusive than the average underground BBS. Wanna-be hackers had trouble getting into it because of the way X.25 networks were billed. Some systems on the network took reverse-charge connections--like a 1-800 number--and some, including Altos, didn't. To get to Altos you needed a company's NUI (Network User Identifier), which was like a calling card number for the X.25 network, used to bill your time on-line. Or you had to have access to a system like Minerva which automatically accepted billing for all the connections made.

X.25 networks are different in various ways from the Internet, which developed later. X.25 networks use different communication protocols and, unlike the Internet at the user-level, they only use addresses containing numbers not letters. Each packet of information travelling over a data network needs to be encased in a particular type of envelope. A `letter' sent across the X.25 network needs an X.25 `stamped' envelope, not an Internet `stamped' envelope.

The X.25 networks were controlled by a few very large players, companies such as Telenet and Tymnet, while the modern Internet is, by contrast, a fragmented collection of many small and medium-sized sites.

Altos unified the international hacking world as nothing else had done. In sharing information about their own countries' computers and networks, hackers helped each other venture further and further abroad. The Australians had gained quite a reputation on Altos. They knew their stuff. More importantly, they possessed DEFCON, a program which mapped out uncharted networks and scanned for accounts on systems within them. Force wrote DEFCON based on a simple automatic scanning program provided by his friend and mentor, Craig Bowen (Thunderbird1).

Like the telephone system, the X.25 networks had a large number of `phone numbers', called network user addresses (NUAs). Most were not valid. They simply hadn't been assigned to anyone yet. To break into computers on the network, you had to find them first, which meant either hearing about a particular system from a fellow hacker or scanning. Scanning--typing in one possible address after another--was worse than looking for a needle in a haystack. 02624-589004-0004. Then increasing the last digit by one on each attempt. 0005. 0006. 0007. Until you hit a machine at the other end.

Back in 1987 or early 1988, Force had logged into Pacific Island for a talk with Craig Bowen. Force bemoaned the tediousness of hand scanning.

`Well, why the hell are you doing it manually?' Bowen responded. `You should just use my program.' He then gave Force the source code for his simple automated scanning program, along with instructions.

Force went through the program and decided it would serve as a good launchpad for bigger things, but it had a major limitation. The program could only handle one connection at a time, which meant it could only scan one branch of a network at a time.

Less than three months later, Force had rewritten Bowen's program into the far more powerful DEFCON, which became the jewel in the crown of the Australian hackers' reputation. With DEFCON, a hacker could automatically scan fifteen or twenty network addresses simultaneously. He could command the computer to map out pieces of the Belgian, British and Greek X.25 communications networks, looking for computers hanging off the networks like buds at the tips of tree branches.

Conceptually, the difference was a little like using a basic PC, which can only run one program at a time, as opposed to operating a more sophisticated one where you can open many windows with different programs running all at once. Even though you might only be working in one window, say, writing a letter, the computer might be doing calculations in a spreadsheet in another window in the background. You can swap between different functions, which are all running in the background simultaneously.

While DEFCON was busy scanning, Force could do other things, such as talk on Altos. He continued improving DEFCON, writing up to four more versions of the program. Before long, DEFCON didn't just scan twenty different connections at one time; it also automatically tried to break into all the computers it found through those connections. Though the program only tried basic default passwords, it had a fair degree of success, since it could attack so many network addresses at once. Further, new sites and mini-networks were being added so quickly that security often fell by the wayside in the rush to join in. Since the addresses were unpublished, companies often felt this obscurity offered enough protection.

DEFCON produced lists of thousands of computer sites to raid. Force would leave it scanning from a hacked Prime computer, and a day or two later he would have an output file with 6000 addresses on different networks. He perused the list and selected sites which caught his attention. If his program had discovered an interesting address, he would travel over the X.25 network to the site and then try to break into the computer at that address. Alternatively, DEFCON might have already successfully penetrated the machine using a default password, in which case the address, account name and password would all be waiting for Force in the log file. He could just walk right in.

Everyone on Altos wanted DEFCON, but Force refused to hand over the program. No way was he going to have other hackers tearing up virgin networks. Not even Erik Bloodaxe, one of the leaders of the most prestigious American hacking group, Legion of Doom (LOD), got DEFCON when he asked for it. Erik took his handle from the name of a Viking king who ruled over the area now known as York, England. Although Erik was on friendly terms with the Australian hackers, Force remained adamant. He would not let the jewel out of his hands.

But on this fateful day in 1988, Par didn't want DEFCON. He wanted the secret Force had just discovered, but held so very close to his chest. And the Australian didn't want to give it to him.

Force was a meticulous hacker. His bedroom was remarkably tidy, for a hacker's room. It had a polished, spartan quality. There were a few well-placed pieces of minimalist furniture: a black enamel metal single bed, a modern black bedside table and a single picture on the wall--a photographic poster of lightning, framed in glass. The largest piece of furniture was a blue-grey desk with a return, upon which sat his computer, a printer and an immaculate pile of print-outs. The bookcase, a tall modern piece matching the rest of the furniture, contained an extensive collection of fantasy fiction books, including what seemed to be almost everything ever written by David Eddings. The lower shelves housed assorted chemistry and programming books. A chemistry award proudly jutted out from the shelf housing a few Dungeons and Dragons books.

He kept his hacking notes in an orderly set of plastic folders, all filed in the bottom of his bookcase. Each page of notes, neatly printed and surrounded by small, tidy handwriting revealing updates and minor corrections, had its own plastic cover to prevent smudges or stains.

Force thought it was inefficient to hand out his DEFCON program and have ten people scan the same network ten different times. It wasted time and resources. Further, it was becoming harder to get access to the main X.25 sites in Australia, like Minerva. Scanning was the type of activity likely to draw the attention of a system admin and result in the account being killed. The more people who scanned, the more accounts would be killed, and the less access the Australian hackers would have. So Force refused to hand over DEFCON to hackers outside The Realm, which is one thing that made it such a powerful group.

Scanning with DEFCON meant using Netlink, a program which legitimate users didn't often employ. In his hunt for hackers, an admin might look for people running Netlink, or he might just examine which systems a user was connecting to. For example, if a hacker connected directly to Altos from Minerva without hopping through a respectable midpoint, such as another corporate machine overseas, he could count on the Minerva admins killing off the account.

DEFCON was revolutionary for its time, and difficult to reproduce. It was written for Prime computers, and not many hackers knew how to write programs for Primes. In fact, it was exceedingly difficult for most hackers to learn programming of any sort for large, commercial machines. Getting the system engineering manuals was tough work and many of the large companies guarded their manuals almost as trade secrets. Sure, if you bought a $100000 system, the company would give you a few sets of operating manuals, but that was well beyond the reach of a teenage hacker. In general, information was hoarded--by the computer manufacturers, by the big companies which bought the systems, by the system administrators and even by the universities.

Learning on-line was slow and almost as difficult. Most hackers used 300 or 1200 baud modems. Virtually all access to these big, expensive machines was illegal. Every moment on-line was a risky proposition. High schools never had these sorts of expensive machines. Although many universities had systems, the administrators were usually miserly with time on-line for students. In most cases, students only got accounts on the big machines in their second year of computer science studies. Even then, student accounts were invariably on the university's oldest, clunkiest machine. And if you weren't a comp-sci student, forget it. Indulging your intellectual curiosity in VMS systems would never be anything more than a pipe dream.

Even if you did manage to overcome all the roadblocks and develop some programming experience in VMS systems, for example, you might only be able to access a small number of machines on any given network. The X.25 networks connected a large number of machines which used very different operating systems. Many, such as Primes, were not in the least bit intuitive. So if you knew VMS and you hit a Prime machine, well, that was pretty much it.

Unless, of course, you happened to belong to a clan of hackers like The Realm. Then you could call up the BBS and post a message. `Hey, I found a really cool Primos system at this address. Ran into problems trying to figure the parameters of the Netlink command. Ideas anyone?' And someone from your team would step forward to help.

In The Realm, Force tried to assemble a diverse group of Australia's best hackers, each with a different area of expertise. And he happened to be the resident expert in Prime computers.

Although Force wouldn't give DEFCON to anyone outside The Realm, he wasn't unreasonable. If you weren't in the system but you had an interesting network you wanted mapped, he would scan it for you. Force referred to scans for network user addresses as `NUA sprints'. He would give you a copy of the NUA sprint. While he was at it, he would also keep a copy for The Realm. That was efficient. Force's pet project was creating a database of systems and networks for The Realm, so he simply added the new information to its database.

Force's great passion was mapping new networks, and new mini-networks were being added to the main X.25 networks all the time. A large corporation, such a BHP, might set up its own small-scale network connecting its offices in Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria and the United Kingdom. That mini-network might be attached to a particular X.25 network, such as Austpac. Get into the Austpac network and chances were you could get into any of the company's sites.

Exploration of all this uncharted territory consumed most of Force's time. There was something cutting-edge, something truly adventurous about finding a new network and carefully piecing together a picture of what the expanding web looked like. He drew detailed pictures and diagrams showing how a new part of the network connected to the rest. Perhaps it appealed to his sense of order, or maybe he was just an adventurer at heart. Whatever the underlying motivation, the maps provided The Realm with yet another highly prized asset.

When he wasn't mapping networks, Force published Australia's first underground hacking journal, Globetrotter. Widely read in the international hacking community, Globetrotter reaffirmed Australian hackers' pre-eminent position in the international underground.

But on this particular day, Par wasn't thinking about getting a copy of Globetrotter or asking Force to scan a network for him. He was thinking about that secret. Force's new secret. The secret Parmaster desperately wanted.

Force had been using DEFCON to scan half a dozen networks while he chatted to Par on Altos. He found an interesting connection from the scan, so he went off to investigate it. When he connected to the unknown computer, it started firing off strings of numbers at Force's machine. Force sat at his desk and watched the characters rush by on his screen.

It was very odd. He hadn't done anything. He hadn't sent any commands to the mystery computer. He hadn't made the slightest attempt to break into the machine. Yet here the thing was throwing streams of numbers. What kind of computer was this? There might have been some sort of header which would identify the computer, but it had zoomed by so fast in the unexpected data dump that Force had missed it.

Force flipped over to his chat with Par on Altos. He didn't completely trust Par, thinking the friendly American sailed a bit close to the wind. But Par was an expert in X.25 networks and was bound to have some clue about these numbers. Besides, if they turned out to be something sensitive, Force didn't have to tell Par where he found them.

`I've just found a bizarre address. It is one strange system. When I connected, it just started shooting off numbers at me. Check these out.'

Force didn't know what the numbers were, but Par sure did. `Those look like credit cards,' he typed back.

`Oh.' Force went quiet.

Par thought the normally chatty Australian hacker seemed astonished. After a short silence, the now curious Par nudged the conversation forward. `I have a way I can check out whether they really are valid cards,' he volunteered. `It'll take some time, but I should be able to do it and get back to you.'

`Yes.' Force seemed hesitant. `OK.'

On the other side of the Pacific from Par, Force thought about this turn of events. If they were valid credit cards, that was very cool. Not because he intended to use them for credit card fraud in the way Ivan Trotsky might have done. But Force could use them for making long-distance phone calls to hack overseas. And the sheer number of cards was astonishing. Thousand and thousands of them. Maybe 10000. All he could think was, Shit! Free connections for the rest of my life.

Hackers such as Force considered using cards to call overseas computer systems a little distasteful, but certainly acceptable. The card owner would never end up paying the bill anyway. The hackers figured that Telecom, which they despised, would probably have to wear the cost in the end, and that was fine by them. Using cards to hack was nothing like ordering consumer goods. That was real credit card fraud. And Force would never sully his hands with that sort of behaviour.

Force scrolled back over his capture of the numbers which had been injected into his machine. After closer inspection, he saw there were headers which appeared periodically through the list. One said, `CitiSaudi'.

He checked the prefix of the mystery machine's network address again. He knew from previous scans that it belonged to one of the world's largest banks. Citibank.

The data dump continued for almost three hours. After that, the Citibank machine seemed to go dead. Force saw nothing but a blank screen, but he kept the connection open. There was no way he was going to hang up from this conversation. He figured this had to be a freak connection--that he accidentally connected to this machine somehow, that it wasn't really at the address he had tried based on the DEFCON scan of Citibank's network.

How else could it have happened? Surely Citibank wouldn't have a computer full of credit cards which spilled its guts every time someone rang up to say `hello'? There would be tonnes of security on a machine like that. This machine didn't even have a password. It didn't even need a special character command, like a secret handshake.

Freak connections happened now and then on X.25 networks. They had the same effect as a missed voice phone connection. You dial a friend's number--and you dial it correctly--but somehow the call gets screwed up in the tangle of wires and exchanges and your call gets put through to another number entirely. Of course, once something like that happens to an X.25 hacker, he immediately tries to figure out what the hell is going on, to search every shred of data from the machine looking for the system's real address. Because it was an accident, he suspects he will never find the machine again.

Force stayed home from school for two days to keep the connection alive and to piece together how he landed on the doorstep of this computer. During this time, the Citibank computer woke up a few times, dumped a bit more information, and then went back to sleep. Keeping the connection alive meant running a small risk of discovery by an admin at his launch point, but the rewards in this case far exceeded the risk.

It wasn't all that unusual for Force to skip school to hack. His parents used to tell him, `You better stop it, or you'll have to wear glasses one day'. Still, they didn't seem to worry too much, since their son had always excelled in school without much effort. At the start of his secondary school career he had tried to convince his teachers he should skip year 9. Some objected. It was a hassle, but he finally arranged it by quietly doing the coursework for year 9 while he was in year 8.

After Force had finally disconnected from the CitiSaudi computer and had a good sleep, he decided to check on whether he could reconnect to the machine. At first, no-one answered, but when he tried a little later, someone answered all right. And it was the same talkative resident who answered the door the first time. Although it only seemed to work at certain hours of the day, the Citibank network address was the right one. He was in again.

As Force looked over the captures from his Citibank hack, he noticed that the last section of the data dump didn't contain credit card numbers like the first part. It had people's names--Middle Eastern names--and a list of transactions. Dinner at a restaurant. A visit to a brothel. All sorts of transactions. There was also a number which looked like a credit limit, in come cases a very, very large limit, for each person. A sheik and his wife appeared to have credit limits of $1 million--each. Another name had a limit of $5 million.

There was something strange about the data, Force thought. It was not structured in a way which suggested the Citibank machine was merely transmitting data to another machine. It looked more like a text file which was being dumped from a computer to a line printer.

Force sat back and considered his exquisite discovery. He decided this was something he would share only with a very few close, trusted friends from The Realm. He would tell Phoenix and perhaps one other member, but no-one else.

As he looked through the data once more, Force began to feel a little anxious. Citibank was a huge financial institution, dependent on the complete confidence of its customers. The corporation would lose a lot of face if news of Force's discovery got out. It might care enough to really come after him. Then, with the sudden clarity of the lightning strike photo which hung on his wall, a single thought filled his mind.

I am playing with fire.

`Where did you get those numbers?' Par asked Force next time they were both on Altos.

Force hedged. Par leaped forward.

`I checked those numbers for you. They're valid,' he told Force. The American was more than intrigued. He wanted that network address. It was lust. Next stop, mystery machine. `So, what's the address?'

That was the one question Force didn't want to hear. He and Par had a good relationship, sharing information comfortably if occasionally. But that relationship only went so far. For all he knew, Par might have a less than desirable use for the information. Force didn't know if Par carded, but he felt sure Par had friends who might be into it. So Force refused to tell Par where to find the mystery machine.

Par wasn't going to give up all that easily. Not that he would use the cards for free cash, but, hey, the mystery machine seemed like a very cool place to check out. There would be no peace for Force until Par got what he wanted. Nothing is so tempting to a hacker as the faintest whiff of information about a system he wants, and Par hounded Force until the Australian hacker relented just a bit.

Finally Force told Par roughly where DEFCON had been scanning for addresses when it stumbled upon the CitiSaudi machine. Force wasn't handing over the street address, just the name of the suburb. DEFCON had been accessing the Citibank network through Telenet, a large American data network using X.25 communications protocols. The sub-prefixes for the Citibank portion of the network were 223 and 224.

Par pestered Force some more for the rest of the numbers, but the Australian had dug his heels in. Force was too careful a player, too fastidious a hacker, to allow himself to get mixed up in the things Par might get up to.

OK, thought the seventeen-year-old Par, I can do this without you. Par estimated there were 20000 possible addresses on that network, any one of which might be the home of the mystery machine. But he assumed the machine would be in the low end of the network, since the lower numbers were usually used first and the higher numbers were generally saved for other, special network functions. His assumptions narrowed the likely search field to about 2000 possible addresses.

Par began hand-scanning on the Citibank Global Telecommunications Network (GTN) looking for the mystery machine. Using his knowledge of the X.25 network, he picked a number to start with. He typed 22301, 22302, 22303. On and on, heading toward 22310000. Hour after hour, slowly, laboriously, working his way through all the options, Par scanned out a piece, or a range, within the network. When he got bored with the 223 prefix, he tried out the 224 one for a bit of variety.

Bleary-eyed and exhausted after a long night at the computer, Par felt like calling it quits. The sun had splashed through the windows of his Salinas, California, apartment hours ago. His living room was a mess, with empty, upturned beer cans circling his Apple IIe. Par gave up for a while, caught some shut-eye. He had gone through the entire list of possible addresses, knocking at all the doors, and nothing had happened. But over the next few days he returned to scanning the network again. He decided to be more methodical about it and do the whole thing from scratch a second time.

He was part way through the second scan when it happened. Par's computer connected to something. He sat up and peered toward the screen. What was going on? He checked the address. He was sure he had tried this one before and nothing had answered. Things were definitely getting strange. He stared at his computer.

The screen was blank, with the cursor blinking silently at the top. Now what? What had Force done to get the computer to sing its song?

Par tried pressing the control key and a few different letters. Nothing. Maybe this wasn't the right address after all. He disconnected from the machine and carefully wrote down the address, determined to try it again later.

On his third attempt, he connected again but found the same irritating blank screen. This time he went through the entire alphabet with the control key.

Control L.

That was the magic keystroke. The one that made CitiSaudi give up its mysterious cache. The one that gave Par an adrenalin rush, along with thousands and thousands of cards. Instant cash, flooding his screen. He turned on the screen capture so he could collect all the information flowing past and analyse it later. Par had to keep feeding his little Apple IIe more disks to store all the data coming in through his 1200 baud modem.

It was magnificent. Par savoured the moment, thinking about how much he was going to enjoy telling Force. It was going to be sweet. Hey, Aussie, you aren't the only show in town. See ya in Citibank.

An hour or so later, when the CitiSaudi data dump had finally finished, Par was stunned at what he found in his capture. These weren't just any old cards. These were debit cards, and they were held by very rich Arabs. These people just plopped a few million in a bank account and linked a small, rectangular piece of plastic to that account. Every charge came directly out of the bank balance. One guy listed in the data dump bought a $330,000 Mercedes Benz in Istanbul--on his card. Par couldn't imagine being able to throw down a bit of plastic for that. Taking that plastic out for a spin around the block would bring a whole new meaning to the expression, `Charge it!'

When someone wins the lottery, they often feel like sharing with their friends. Which is exactly what Par did. First, he showed his room-mates. They thought it was very cool. But not nearly so cool as the half dozen hackers and phreakers who happened to be on the telephone bridge Par frequented when the master of X.25 read off a bunch of the cards.

Par was a popular guy after that day. Par was great, a sort of Robin Hood of the underground. Soon, everyone wanted to talk to him. Hackers in New York. Phreakers in Virginia. And the Secret Service in San Francisco.

Par didn't mean to fall in love with Theorem. It was an accident, and he couldn't have picked a worse girl to fall for. For starters, she lived in Switzerland. She was 23 and he was only seventeen. She also happened to be in a relationship--and that relationship was with Electron, one of the best Australian hackers of the late 1980s. But Par couldn't help himself. She was irresistible, even though he had never met her in person. Theorem was different. She was smart and funny, but refined, as a European woman can be.

They met on Altos in 1988.

Theorem didn't hack computers. She didn't need to, since she could connect to Altos through her old university computer account. She had first found Altos on 23 December 1986. She remembered the date for two reasons. First, she was amazed at the power of Altos--that she could have a live conversation on-line with a dozen people in different countries at the same time. Altos was a whole new world for her. Second, that was the day she met Electron.

Electron made Theorem laugh. His sardonic, irreverent humour hit a chord with her. Traditional Swiss society could be stifling and closed, but Electron was a breath of fresh air. Theorem was Swiss but she didn't always fit the mould. She hated skiing. She was six feet tall. She liked computers.

When they met on-line, the 21-year-old Theorem was at a crossroad in her youth. She had spent a year and a half at university studying mathematics. Unfortunately, the studies had not gone well. The truth be told, her second year of university was in fact the first year all over again. A classmate had introduced her to Altos on the university's computers. Not long after she struck up a relationship with Electron, she dropped out of uni all together and enrolled in a secretarial course. After that, she found a secretarial job at a financial institution.

Theorem and Electron talked on Altos for hours at a time. They talked about everything--life, family, movies, parties--but not much about what most people on Altos talked about--hacking. Eventually, Electron gathered up the courage to ask Theorem for her voice telephone number. She gave it to him happily and Electron called her at home in Lausanne. They talked. And talked. And talked. Soon they were on the telephone all the time.

Seventeen-year-old Electron had never had a girlfriend. None of the girls in his middle-class high school would give him the time of day when it came to romance. Yet here was this bright, vibrant girl--a girl who studied maths--speaking to him intimately in a melting French accent. Best of all, she genuinely liked him. A few words from his lips could send her into silvery peals of laughter.

When the phone bill arrived, it was $1000. Electron surreptitiously collected it and buried it at the bottom of a drawer in his bedroom.

When he told Theorem, she offered to help pay for it. A cheque for $700 showed up not long after. It made the task of explaining Telecom's reminder notice to his father much easier.

The romantic relationship progressed throughout 1987 and the first half of 1988. Electron and Theorem exchanged love letters and tender intimacies over 16000 kilometres of computer networks, but the long-distance relationship had some bumpy periods. Like when she had an affair over several months with Pengo. A well-known German hacker with links to the German hacking group called the Chaos Computer Club, Pengo was also a friend and mentor to Electron. Pengo was, however, only a short train ride away from Theorem. She became friends with Pengo on Altos and eventually visited him. Things progressed from there.

Theorem was honest with Electron about the affair, but there was something unspoken, something below the surface. Even after the affair ended, Theorem was sweet on Pengo the way a girl remains fond of her first love regardless of how many other men she has slept with since then.

Electron felt hurt and angry, but he swallowed his pride and forgave Theorem her dalliance. Eventually, Pengo disappeared from the scene.

Pengo had been involved with people who sold US military secrets--taken from computers--to the KGB. Although his direct involvement in the ongoing international computer espionage had been limited, he began to worry about the risks. His real interest was in hacking, not spying. The Russian connection simply enabled him to get access to bigger and better computers. Beyond that, he felt no loyalty to the Russians.

In the first half of 1988, he handed himself in to the German authorities. Under West German law at the time, a citizen-spy who surrendered himself before the state discovered the crime, and thus averted more damage to the state, acquired immunity from prosecution. Having already been busted in December 1986 for using a stolen NUI, Pengo decided that turning himself in would be his best hope of taking advantage of this legal largesse.

By the end of the year, things had become somewhat hairy for Pengo and in March 1989 the twenty-year-old from Berlin was raided again, this time with the four others involved in the spy ring. The story broke and the media exposed Pengo's real name. He didn't know if he would eventually be tried and convicted of something related to the incident. Pengo had a few things on his mind other than the six-foot Swiss girl.

With Pengo out of the way, the situation between Theorem and the Australian hacker improved. Until Par came along.

Theorem and Par began innocently enough. Being one of only a few girls in the international hacking and phreaking scene and, more particularly, on Altos, she was treated differently. She had lots of male friends on the German chat system, and the boys told her things in confidence they would never tell each other. They sought out her advice. She often felt like she wore many hats--mother, girlfriend, psychiatrist--when she spoke with the boys on Altos.

Par had been having trouble with his on-line girlfriend, Nora, and when he met Theorem he turned to her for a bit of support. He had travelled from California to meet Nora in person in New York. But when he arrived in the sweltering heat of a New York summer, without warning, her conservative Chinese parents didn't take kindly to his unannounced appearance. There were other frictions between Nora and Par. The relationship had been fine on Altos and on the phone, but things were just not clicking in person.

He already knew that virtual relationships, forged over an electronic medium which denied the importance of physical chemistry, could sometimes be disappointing.

Par used to hang out on a phone bridge with another Australian member of The Realm, named Phoenix, and with a fun girl from southern California. Tammi, a casual phreaker, had a great personality and a hilarious sense of humour. During those endless hours chatting, she and Phoenix seemed to be in the throes of a mutual crush. In the phreaking underground, they were known as a bit of a virtual item. She had even invited Phoenix to come visit her sometime. Then, one day, for the fun of it, Tammi decided to visit Par in Monterey. Her appearance was a shock.

Tammi had described herself to Phoenix as being a blue-eyed, blonde California girl. Par knew that Phoenix visualised her as a stereotypical bikini-clad, beach bunny from LA. His perception rested on a foreigner's view of the southern California culture. The land of milk and honey. The home of the Beach Boys and TV series like `Charlie's Angels'.

When Tammi arrived, Par knew instantly that she and Phoenix would never hit it off in person. Tammi did in fact have both blonde hair and blue eyes. She had neglected to mention, however, that she weighed about 300 pounds, had a rather homely face and a somewhat down-market style. Par really liked Tammi, but he couldn't get the ugly phrase `white trash' out of his thoughts. He pushed and shoved, but the phrase was wedged in his mind. It fell to Par to tell Phoenix the truth about Tammi.

So Par knew all about how reality could burst the foundations of a virtual relationship.

Leaving New York and Nora behind, Par moved across the river to New Jersey to stay with a friend, Byteman, who was one of a group of hackers who specialised in breaking into computer systems run by Bell Communications Research (Bellcore). Bellcore came into existence at the beginning of 1984 as a result of the break-up of the US telephone monopoly known as Bell Systems. Before the break-up, Bell Systems' paternalistic holding company, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), had fostered the best and brightest in Bell Labs, its research arm. Over the course of its history, Bell Labs boasted at least seven Nobel-prize winning researchers and numerous scientific achievements. All of which made Bellcore a good target for hackers trying to prove their prowess.

Byteman used to chat with Theorem on Altos, and eventually he called her, voice. Par must have looked pretty inconsolable, because one day while Byteman was talking to Theorem, he suddenly said to her, `Hey, wanna talk to a friend of mine?' Theorem said `Sure' and Byteman handed the telephone to Par. They talked for about twenty minutes.

After that they spoke regularly both on Altos and on the phone. For weeks after Par returned to California, Theorem tried to cheer him up after his unfortunate experience with Nora. By mid-1988, they had fallen utterly and passionately in love.

Electron, an occasional member of Force's Realm group, took the news very badly. Not everyone on Altos liked Electron. He could be a little prickly, and very cutting when he chose to be, but he was an ace hacker, on an international scale, and everyone listened to him. Obsessive, creative and quick off the mark, Electron had respect, which is one reason Par felt so badly.

When Theorem told Electron the bad news in a private conversation on-line, Electron had let fly in the public area, ripping into the American hacker on the main chat section of Altos, in front of everyone.

Par took it on the chin and refused to fight back. What else could he do? He knew what it was like to hurt. He felt for the guy and knew how he would feel if he lost Theorem. And he knew that Electron must be suffering a terrible loss of face. Everyone saw Electron and Theorem as an item. They had been together for more than a year. So Par met Electron's fury with grace and quiet words of consolation.

Par didn't hear much from Electron after that day. The Australian still visited Altos, but he seemed more withdrawn, at least whenever Par was around. After that day, Par ran into him once, on a phone bridge with a bunch of Australian hackers.

Phoenix said on the bridge, `Hey, Electron. Par's on the bridge.'

Electron paused. `Oh, really,' he answered coolly. Then he went silent.

Par let Electron keep his distance. After all, Par had what really counted--the girl.

Par called Theorem almost every day. Soon they began to make plans for her to fly to California so they could meet in person. Par tried not to expect too much, but he found it difficult to stop savouring the thought of finally seeing Theorem face to face. It gave him butterflies.

Yeah, Par thought, things are really looking up.

The beauty of Altos was that, like Pacific Island or any other local BBS, a hacker could take on any identity he wanted. And he could do it on an international scale. Visiting Altos was like attending a glittering masquerade ball. Anyone could recreate himself. A socially inept hacker could pose as a character of romance and adventure. And a security official could pose as a hacker.

Which is exactly what Telenet security officer Steve Mathews did on 27 October 1988. Par happened to be on-line, chatting away with his friends and hacker colleagues. At any given moment, there were always a few strays on Altos, a few people who weren't regulars. Naturally, Mathews didn't announce himself as being a Telenet guy. He just slipped quietly onto Altos looking like any other hacker. He might engage a hacker in conversation, but he let the hacker do most of the talking. He was there to listen.

On that fateful day, Par happened to be in one of his magnanimous moods. Par had never had much money growing up, but he was always very generous with what he did have. He talked for a little while with the unknown hacker on Altos, and then gave him one of the debit cards taken from his visits to the CitiSaudi computer. Why not? On Altos, it was a bit like handing out your business card. `The Parmaster--Parameters Par Excellence'.

Par had got his full name--The Parmaster--in his earliest hacking days. Back then, he belonged to a group of teenagers involved in breaking the copy protections on software programs for Apple IIes, particularly games. Par had a special gift for working out the copy protection parameters, which was a first step in bypassing the manufacturers' protection schemes. The ringleader of the group began calling him `the master of parameters'--The Parmaster--Par, for short. As he moved into serious hacking and developed his expertise in X.25 networks, he kept the name because it fitted nicely in his new environment. `Par?' was a common command on an X.25 pad, the modem gateway to an X.25 network.

`I've got lots more where that come from,' Par told the stranger on Altos. `I've got like 4000 cards from a Citibank system.'

Not long after that, Steve Mathews was monitoring Altos again, when Par showed up handing out cards to people once more.

`I've got an inside contact,' Par confided. `He's gonna make up a whole mess of new, plastic cards with all these valid numbers from the Citibank machine. Only the really big accounts, though. Nothing with a balance under $25000.'

Was Par just making idle conversation, talking big on Altos? Or would he really have gone through with committing such a major fraud? Citibank, Telenet and the US Secret Service would never know, because their security guys began closing the net around Par before he had a chance to take his idea any further.

Mathews contacted Larry Wallace, fraud investigator with Citibank in San Mateo, California. Wallace checked out the cards. They were valid all right. They belonged to the Saudi-American Bank in Saudi Arabia and were held on a Citibank database in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Wallace determined that, with its affiliation to the Middle Eastern bank, Citibank had a custodial responsibility for the accounts. That meant he could open a major investigation.

On 7 November, Wallace brought in the US Secret Service. Four days later, Wallace and Special Agent Thomas Holman got their first major lead when they interviewed Gerry Lyons of Pacific Bell's security office in San Francisco.

Yes, Lyons told the investigators, she had some information they might find valuable. She knew all about hackers and phreakers. In fact, the San Jose Police had just busted two guys trying to phreak at a pay phone. The phreakers seemed to know something about a Citibank system.

When the agents showed up at the San Jose Police Department for their appointment with Sergeant Dave Flory, they received another pleasant surprise. The sergeant had a book filled with hackers' names and numbers seized during the arrest of the two pay-phone phreakers. He also happened to be in possession of a tape recording of the phreakers talking to Par from a prison phone.

The cheeky phreakers had used the prison pay phone to call up a telephone bridge located at the University of Virginia. Par, the Australian hackers and other assorted American phreakers and hackers visited the bridge frequently. At any one moment, there might be eight to ten people from the underground sitting on the bridge. The phreakers found Par hanging out there, as usual, and they warned him. His name and number were inside the book seized by police when they were busted.

Par didn't seem worried at all.

`Hey, don't worry. It's cool,' he reassured them. `I have just disconnected my phone number today--with no forwarding details.'

Which wasn't quite true. His room-mate, Scott, had indeed disconnected the phone which was in his name because he had been getting prank calls. However, Scott opened a new telephone account at the same address with the same name on the same day--all of which made the job of tracking down the mysterious hacker named Par much easier for the law enforcement agencies.

In the meantime, Larry Wallace had been ringing around his contacts in the security business and had come up with another lead. Wanda Gamble, supervisor for the Southeastern Region of MCI Investigations, in Atlanta, had a wealth of information on the hacker who called himself Par. She was well connected when it came to hackers, having acquired a collection of reliable informants during her investigations of hacker-related incidents. She gave the Citibank investigator two mailbox numbers for Par. She also handed them what she believed was his home phone number.

The number checked out and on 25 November, the day after Thanksgiving, the Secret Service raided Par's house. The raid was terrifying. At least four law enforcement officers burst through the door with guns drawn and pointed. One of them had a shotgun. As is often the case in the US, investigators from private, commercial organisations--in this case Citibank and Pacific Bell--also took part in the raid.

The agents tore the place apart looking for evidence. They dragged down the food from the kitchen cupboards. They emptied the box of cornflakes into the sink looking for hidden computer disks. They looked everywhere, even finding a ceiling cavity at the back of a closet which no-one even knew existed.

They confiscated Par's Apple IIe, printer and modem. But, just to be sure, they also took the Yellow Pages, along with the telephone and the new Nintendo game paddles Scott had just bought. They scooped up the very large number of papers which had been piled under the coffee table, including the spiral notebook with Scott's airline bookings from his job as a travel agent. They even took the garbage.

It wasn't long before they found the red shoebox full of disks peeping out from under the fish tank next to Par's computer.

They found lots of evidence. What they didn't find was Par.

Instead, they found Scott and Ed, two friends of Par. They were pretty shaken up by the raid. Not knowing Par's real identity, the Secret Service agents accused Scott of being Par. The phone was in his name, and Special Agent Holman had even conducted some surveillance more than a week before the raid, running the plates on Scott's 1965 black Ford Mustang parked in front of the house. The Secret Service was sure it had its man, and Scott had a hell of a time convincing them otherwise.

Both Scott and Ed swore up and down that they weren't hackers or phreakers, and they certainly weren't Par. But they knew who Par was, and they told the agents his real name. After considerable pressure from the Secret Service, Scott and Ed agreed to make statements down at the police station.

In Chicago, more than 2700 kilometres away from the crisis unfolding in northern California, Par and his mother watched his aunt walk down the aisle in her white gown.

Par telephoned home once, to Scott, to say `hi' from the Midwest. The call came after the raid.

`So,' a relaxed Par asked his room-mate, `How are things going at home?'

`Fine,' Scott replied. `Nothing much happening here.'

Par looked down at the red bag he was carrying with a momentary expression of horror. He realised he stood out in the San Jose bus terminal like a peacock among the pigeons ...

Blissfully ignorant of the raid which had occurred three days before, Par and his mother had flown into San Jose airport. They had gone to the bus terminal to pick up a Greyhound home to the Monterey area. While waiting for the bus, Par called his friend Tammi to say he was back in California.

Any casual bystander waiting to use the pay phones at that moment would have seen a remarkable transformation in the brown-haired boy at the row of phones. The smiling face suddenly dropped in a spasm of shock. His skin turned ash white as the blood fled south. His deep-set chocolate brown eyes, with their long, graceful lashes curving upward and their soft, shy expression, seemed impossibly large.

For at that moment Tammi told Par that his house had been raided by the Secret Service. That Scott and Ed had been pretty upset about having guns shoved in their faces, and had made statements about him to the police. That they thought their phone was tapped. That the Secret Service guys were still hunting for Par, they knew his real name, and she thought there was an all points bulletin out for him. Scott had told the Secret Service about Par's red bag, the one with all his hacking notes that he always carried around. The one with the print-out of all the Citibank credit card numbers.

And so it was that Par came to gaze down at his bag with a look of alarm. He realised instantly that the Secret Service would be looking for that red bag. If they didn't know what he looked like, they would simply watch for the bag.

That bag was not something Par could hide easily. The Citibank print-out was the size of a phone book. He also had dozens of disks loaded with the cards and other sensitive hacking information.

Par had used the cards to make a few free calls, but he hadn't been charging up any jet skis. He fought temptation valiantly, and in the end he had won, but others might not have been so victorious in the same battle. Par figured that some less scrupulous hackers had probably been charging up a storm. He was right. Someone had, for example, tried to send a $367 bouquet of flowers to a woman in El Paso using one of the stolen cards. The carder had unwittingly chosen a debit card belonging to a senior Saudi bank executive who happened to be in his office at the time the flower order was placed. Citibank investigator Larry Wallace added notes on that incident to his growing file.

Par figured that Citibank would probably try to pin every single attempt at carding on him. Why not? What kind of credibility would a seventeen-year-old hacker have in denying those sorts of allegations? Zero. Par made a snap decision. He sidled up to a trash bin in a dark corner. Scanning the scene warily, Par casually reached into the red bag, pulled out the thick wad of Citibank card print-outs and stuffed it into the bin. He fluffed a few stray pieces of garbage over the top.

He worried about the computer disks with all his other valuable hacking information. They represented thousands of hours of work and he couldn't bring himself to throw it all away. The 10 megabyte trophy. More than 4000 cards. 130000 different transactions. In the end, he decided to hold on to the disks, regardless of the risk. At least, without the print-out, he could crumple the bag up a bit and make it a little less conspicuous. As Par slowly moved away from the bin, he glanced back to check how nondescript the burial site appeared from a distance. It looked like a pile of garbage. Trash worth millions of dollars, headed for the dump.

As he boarded the bus to Salinas with his mother, Par's mind was instantly flooded with images of a homeless person fishing the print-out from the bin and asking someone about it. He tried to push the idea from his head.

During the bus ride, Par attempted to figure out what he was going to do. He didn't tell his mother anything. She couldn't even begin to comprehend his world of computers and networks, let alone his current predicament. Further, Par and his mother had suffered from a somewhat strained relationship since he ran away from home not long after his seventeenth birthday. He had been kicked out of school for non-attendance, but had found a job tutoring students in computers at the local college. Before the trip to Chicago, he had seen her just once in six months. No, he couldn't turn to her for help.

The bus rolled toward the Salinas station. En route, it travelled down the street where Par lived. He saw a jogger, a thin black man wearing a walkman. What the hell is a jogger doing here, Par thought. No-one jogged in the semi-industrial neighbourhood. Par's house was about the only residence amid all the light-industrial buildings. As soon as the jogger was out of sight of the house, he suddenly broke away from his path, turned off to one side and hit the ground. As he lay on his stomach on some grass, facing the house, he seemed to begin talking into the walkman.

Sitting watching this on the bus, Par flipped out. They were out to get him, no doubt about it. When the bus finally arrived at the depot and his mother began sorting out their luggage, Par tucked the red bag under his arm and disappeared. He found a pay phone and called Scott to find out the status of things. Scott handed the phone to Chris, another friend who lived in the house. Chris had been away at his parents' home during the Thanksgiving raid.

`Hold tight and lay low,' Chris told Par.

`I'm on my way over to pick you up and take you to a lawyer's office where you can get some sort of protection.'

A specialist in criminal law, Richard Rosen was born in New York but raised in his later childhood in California. He had a personality which reflected the steely stubbornness of a New Yorker, tempered with the laid-back friendliness of the west coast. Rosen also harboured a strong anti-authoritarian streak. He represented the local chapter of Hell's Angels in the middle-class County of Monterey. He also caused a splash representing the growing midwifery movement, which promoted home-births. The doctors of California didn't like him much as a result.

Par's room-mates met with Rosen after the raid to set things up for Par's return. They told him about the terrifying ordeal of the Secret Service raid, and how they were interrogated for an hour and a half before being pressured to give statements. Scott, in particular, felt that he had been forced to give a statement against Par under duress.

While Par talked to Chris on the phone, he noticed a man standing at the end of the row of pay phones. This man was also wearing a walkman. He didn't look Par in the eye. Instead, he faced the wall, glancing furtively off to the side toward where Par was standing. Who was that guy? Fear welled up inside Par and all sorts of doubts flooded his mind. Who could he trust?

Scott hadn't told him about the raid. Were his room-mates in cahoots the Secret Service? Were they just buying time so they could turn him in? There was no-one else Par could turn to. His mother wouldn't understand. Besides, she had problems of her own. And he didn't have a father. As far as Par was concerned, his father was as good as dead. He had never met the man, but he heard he was a prison officer in Florida. Not a likely candidate for helping Par in this situation. He was close to his grandparents--they had bought his computer for him as a present--but they lived in a tiny Mid-Western town and they simply wouldn't understand either.

Par didn't know what to do, but he didn't seem to have many options at the moment, so he told Chris he would wait at the station for him. Then he ducked around a corner and tried to hide.

A few minutes later, Chris pulled into the depot. Par dove into the Toyota Landcruiser and Chris tore out of the station toward Rosen's office. They noticed a white car race out of the bus station after them.

While they drove, Par pieced together the story from Chris. No-one had warned him about the raid because everyone in the house believed the phone line was tapped. Telling Par while he was in Chicago might have meant another visit from the Secret Service. All they had been able to do was line up Rosen to help him.

Par checked the rear-view mirror. The white car was still following them. Chris made a hard turn at the next intersection and accelerated down the California speedway. The white car tore around the corner in pursuit. No matter what Chris did, he couldn't shake the tail. Par sat in the seat next to Chris, quietly freaking out.

Just 24 hours before, he had been safe and sound in Chicago. How did he end up back here in California being chased by a mysterious driver in a white car?

Chris tried his best to break free, swerving and racing. The white car wouldn't budge. But Chris and Par had one advantage over the white car; they were in a four-wheel drive. In a split-second decision, Chris jerked the steering wheel to one side. The Landcruiser veered off the road onto a lettuce field. Par gripped the inside of the door as the 4WD bounced through the dirt over the neat crop rows. Near-ripe heads of lettuce went flying out from under the tires. Half-shredded lettuce leaves filled the air. A cloud of dirt enveloped the car. The vehicle skidded and jerked, but finally made its way to a highway at the far end of the field. Chris hit the highway running, swerving into the lane at high speed.

When Par looked back, the white car had disappeared. Chris kept his foot on the accelerator and Par barely breathed until the Landcruiser pulled up in front of Richard Rosen's building.

Par leaped out, the red bag still clutched tightly under his arm, and high-tailed it into the lawyer's office. The receptionist looked a bit shocked when he said his name. Someone must have filled her in on the details.

Rosen quickly ushered him into his office. Introductions were brief and Par cut to the story of the chase. Rosen listened intently, occasionally asking a well-pointed question, and then took control of the situation.

The first thing they needed to do was call off the Secret Service chase, Rosen said, so Par didn't have to spend any more time ducking around corners and hiding in bus depots. He called the Secret Service's San Francisco office and asked Special Agent Thomas J. Holman to kill the Secret Service pursuit in exchange for an agreement that Par would turn himself in to be formally charged.

Holman insisted that they had to talk to Par.

No, Rosen said. There would be no interviews for Par by law enforcement agents until a deal had been worked out.

But the Secret Service needed to talk to Par, Holman insisted. They could only discuss all the other matters after the Secret Service had had a chance to talk with Par.

Rosen politely warned Holman not to attempt to contact his client. You have something to say to Par, you go through me, he said. Holman did not like that at all. When the Secret Service wanted to talk to someone, they were used to getting their way. He pushed Rosen, but the answer was still no. No no no and no again. Holman had made a mistake. He had assumed that everyone wanted to do business with the United States Secret Service.

When he finally realised Rosen wouldn't budge, Holman gave up. Rosen then negotiated with the federal prosecutor, US Attorney Joe Burton, who was effectively Holman's boss in the case, to call off the pursuit in exchange for Par handing himself in to be formally charged.

Then Par gave Rosen his red bag, for safekeeping.

At about the same time, Citibank investigator Wallace and Detective Porter of the Salinas Police interviewed Par's mother as she returned home from the bus depot. She said that her son had moved out of her home some six months before, leaving her with a $2000 phone bill she couldn't pay. They asked if they could search her home. Privately, she worried about what would happen if she refused. Would they tell the office where she worked as a clerk? Could they get her fired? A simple woman who had little experience dealing with law enforcement agents, Par's mother agreed. The investigators took Par's disks and papers.

Par turned himself in to the Salinas Police in the early afternoon of 12 December. The police photographed and fingerprinted him before handing him a citation--a small yellow slip headed `502 (c) (1) PC'. It looked like a traffic ticket, but the two charges Par faced were felonies, and each carried a maximum term of three years for a minor. Count 1, for hacking into Citicorp Credit Services, also carried a fine of up to $10000. Count 2, for `defrauding a telephone service', had no fine: the charges were for a continuing course of conduct, meaning that they applied to the same activity over an extended period of time.

Federal investigators had been astonished to find Par was so young. Dealing with a minor in the federal court system was a big hassle, so the prosecutor decided to ask the state authorities to prosecute the case. Par was ordered to appear in Monterey County Juvenile Court on 10 July 1989.

Over the next few months, Par worked closely with Rosen. Though Rosen was a very adept lawyer, the situation looked pretty depressing. Citibank claimed it had spent $30000 on securing its systems and Par believed that the corporation might be looking for up to $3 million in total damages. While they couldn't prove Par had made any money from the cards himself, the prosecution would argue that his generous distribution of them had led to serious financial losses. And that was just the financial institutions.

Much more worrying was what might come out about Par's visits to TRW's computers. The Secret Service had seized at least one disk with TRW material on it.

TRW was a large, diverse company, with assets of $2.1 billion and sales of almost $7 billion in 1989, nearly half of which came from the US government. It employed more than 73000 people, many of who worked with the company's credit ratings business. TRW's vast databases held private details of millions of people--addresses, phone numbers, financial data.

That, however, was just one of the company's many businesses. TRW also did defence work--very secret defence work. Its Space and Defense division, based in Redondo Beach, California, was widely believed to be a major beneficiary of the Reagan Government's Star Wars budget. More than 10 per cent of the company's employees worked in this division, designing spacecraft systems, communications systems, satellites and other, unspecified, space `instruments'.

The siezed disk had some mail from the company's TRWMAIL systems. It wasn't particularly sensitive, mostly just company propaganda sent to employees, but the Secret Service might think that where there was smoke, there was bound to be fire. TRW did the kind of work that makes governments very nervous when it comes to unauthorised access. And Par had visited certain TRW machines; he knew that company had a missiles research section, and even a space weapons section.

With so many people out to get him--Citibank, the Secret Service, the local police, even his own mother had helped the other side--it was only a matter of time before they unearthed the really secret things he had seen while hacking. Par began to wonder if was such a good idea for him to stay around for the trial.

In early 1989, when Theorem stepped off the plane which carried her from Switzerland to San Francisco, she was pleased that she had managed to keep a promise to herself. It wasn't always an easy promise. There were times of intimacy, of perfect connection, between the two voices on opposite sides of the globe, when it seemed so breakable.

Meanwhile, Par braced himself. Theorem had described herself in such disparaging terms. He had even heard from others on Altos that she was homely. But that description had ultimately come from her anyway, so it didn't really count.

Finally, as he watched the stream of passengers snake out to the waiting area, he told himself it didn't matter anyway. After all, he had fallen in love with her--her being, her essence--not her image as it appeared in flesh. And he had told her so. She had said the same back to him.

Suddenly she was there, in front of him. Par had to look up slightly to reach her eyes, since she was a little more than an inch taller. She was quite pretty, with straight, brown shoulder-length hair and brown eyes. He was just thinking how much more attractive she was than he had expected, when it happened.

Theorem smiled.

Par almost lost his balance. It was a devastating smile, big and toothy, warm and genuine. Her whole face lit up with a fire of animation. That smile sealed it.

She had kept her promise to herself. There was no clear image of Par in her mind before meeting him in person. After meeting a few people from Altos at a party in Munich the year before, she had tried not to create images of people based on their on-line personalities. That way she would never suffer disappointment.

Par and Theorem picked up her bags and got into Brian's car. Brian, a friend who offered to play airport taxi because Par didn't have a car, thought Theorem was pretty cool. A six-foot-tall French-speaking Swiss woman. It was definitely cool. They drove back to Par's house. Then Brian came in for a chat.

Brian asked Theorem all sorts of questions. He was really curious, because he had never met anyone from Europe before. Par kept trying to encourage his friend to leave but Brian wanted to know all about life in Switzerland. What was the weather like? Did people ski all the time?

Par kept looking Brian in the eye and then staring hard at the door.

Did most Swiss speak English? What other languages did she know? A lot of people skied in California. It was so cool talking to someone from halfway around the world.

Par did the silent chin-nudge toward the door and, at last, Brian got the hint. Par ushered his friend out of the house. Brian was only there for about ten minutes, but it felt like a year. When Par and Theorem were alone, they talked a bit, then Par suggested they go for a walk.

Halfway down the block, Par tentatively reached for her hand and took it in his own. She seemed to like it. Her hand was warm. They talked a bit more, then Par stopped. He turned to face her. He paused, and then told her something he had told her before over the telephone, something they both knew already.

Theorem kissed him. It startled Par. He was completely unprepared. Then Theorem said the same words back to him.

When they returned to the house, things progressed from there. They spent two and a half weeks in each other's arms--and they were glorious, sun-drenched weeks. The relationship proved to be far, far better in person than it had ever been on-line or on the telephone. Theorem had captivated Par, and Par, in turn, created a state of bliss in Theorem.

Par showed her around his little world in northern California. They visited a few tourist sites, but mostly they just spent a lot of time at home. They talked, day and night, about everything.

Then it was time for Theorem to leave, to return to her job and her life in Switzerland. Her departure was hard--driving to the airport, seeing her board the plane--it was heart-wrenching. Theorem looked very upset. Par just managed to hold it together until the plane took off.

For two and a half weeks, Theorem had blotted out Par's approaching court case. As she flew away, the dark reality of the case descended on him.

The fish liked to watch.

Par sat at the borrowed computer all night in the dark, with only the dull glow of his monitor lighting the room, and the fish would all swim over to the side of their tank and peer out at him. When things were quiet on-line, Par's attention wandered to the eel and the lion fish. Maybe they were attracted to the phosphorescence of the computer screen. Whatever the reason, they certainly liked to hover there. It was eerie.

Par took a few more drags of his joint, watched the fish some more, drank his Coke and then turned his attention back to his computer.

That night, Par saw something he shouldn't have. Not the usual hacker stuff. Not the inside of a university. Not even the inside of an international bank containing private financial information about Middle Eastern sheiks.

What he saw was information about some sort of killer spy satellite--those are the words Par used to describe it to other hackers. He said the satellite was capable of shooting down other satellites caught spying, and he saw it inside a machine connected to TRW's Space and Defense division network. He stumbled upon it much the same way Force had accidentally found the CitiSaudi machine--through scanning. Par didn't say much else about it because the discovery scared the hell out of him.

Suddenly, he felt like the man who knew too much. He'd been in and out of so many military systems, seen so much sensitive material, that he had become a little blasé about the whole thing. The information was cool to read but, God knows, he never intended to actually do anything with it. It was just a prize, a glittering trophy testifying to his prowess as a hacker. But this discovery shook him up, slapped him in the face, made him realise he was exposed.

What would the Secret Service do to him when they found out? Hand him another little traffic ticket titled `502C'? No way. Let him tell the jury at his trial everything he knew? Let the newspapers print it? Not a snowball's chance in hell.

This was the era of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, of space defence initiatives, of huge defence budgets and very paranoid military commanders who viewed the world as one giant battlefield with the evil empire of the Soviet Union.

Would the US government just lock him up and throw away the key? Would it want to risk him talking to other prisoners--hardened criminals who knew how to make a dollar from that sort of information? Definitely not.

That left just one option. Elimination.

It was not a pretty thought. But to the seventeen-year-old hacker it was a very plausible one. Par considered what he could do and came up with what seemed to be the only solution.


Contents | Previous: Chapter 2 -- The Corner Pub | Next: Chapter 4 -- The Fugitive